How The Wall Came Tumbling Down: Watches Made In Germany – Reprise
The year was 1989. The day was November 9. And I was still a student at the University of Bonn doing graduate work.
I clearly remember watching the history-altering events on television that day on one of the three channels we had at the time in West Germany: it was footage of German people tearing the wall down on both sides with their hands. That and the sight of East Germans streaming into West Berlin made a lasting, emotional impact on me.
Those images, coupled with overjoyed feelings of happiness and relief, are one of the strongest memories I have of that historic time. The unnatural division of a people in my adopted home was at an end.
In the video below you’ll see reporting on the fateful events surrounding November 9, 1989 in German language, which includes East Germans going shopping in West Berlin using the Begrüssungsgeld (“greeting money”) of 100 German marks they received from the government. Interestingly, at two minutes in someone buying a watch comes into view, though it is not possible to tell which watch it is.
This day seems like an eternity ago; so much has happened both in a general sense and in terms of watchmaking. The rebirth of Glashütte’s horological industry is an unparalleled story, one coming with a great number of human-condition stories that will someday need lots of telling.
If you live outside Germany, you’re unlikely to know that October 3 is the official Reunification Day holiday in Germany. The government decided not to dedicate November 9 because further back in history there are other, much less positive associations with that date.
I entered the watch industry by way of a publishing house in 1990, and over the ensuing more than 30 years, I have – for obvious reasons – taken a real shine to German watches. And I treasure every sober detail about them that I have had the privilege to get to know.
According to prevailing opinion, modern watchmaking seems to have originated in southern Germany. In fact, there is a little-known monument called Walhalla (“Valhalla”) in Donaustauf that was built at the behest of Bavaria’s King Ludwig I in 1842. It contains marble busts and memorial plates in honor of 195 great Germanic personalities, reminding us of their deeds and words. And there is indeed a watchmaker among them: Peter Henlein (1479-1542). He is said to have made the first portable watch in 1505.
Since Henlein’s death in 1542, Germany has progressed quite a way in watchmaking, although today the country is far less famous for its horological feats than its geographical neighbor, Switzerland.
The “gold city” Pforzheim has maintained a lively center for the decorative arts associated with watchmaking like engraving, goldsmithing, guilloché, and stone-setting, in addition to various watchmakers and, above all, suppliers.
Idar-Oberstein is an important center for precious and semi-precious stones, and many watch companies and their suppliers purchase goods and services here. Including Hermès, whose Millefiori crystal globes are sliced by a specialist company in Idar-Oberstein for use as a dial. See How Hermès Transforms Crystal Into The Colorful Dial Of The Arceau Millefiori Watch for more information on that.
Aside from cuckoo clocks, the Black Forest was at one time home to the largest watch factory in the world. In its heyday around 1903, Junghans – founded in 1861 and now most famous for bringing solar technology to the wrist – employed 3,000 people.
There are various important suppliers to the watch industry and watch brands large and small spread all over the country still today. Perhaps most notable among the brands outside of Saxony has been Chronoswiss, whose founder Gerd-Rüdiger Lang aided in heralding the mechanical renaissance in the late 1980s.
Dresden and Glashütte constitute the focal point of German watchmaking today, though.
A few notable German watch facts
* A. Lange & Söhne’s founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange also founded Glashütte’s entire watch industry in 1845, creating a division-of-labor concept that worked excellently until the company was expropriated by the East German government in 1951. The company enjoyed a reputation of world-renown among connoisseurs like no other in the country. See Happy 90th Birthday To Walter Lange With A Look Back At The Modern A. Lange & Söhne for more on that.
* In 1951 the East German government combined all of Glashütte’s micro-mechanical and horological companies into one state-owned entity. The “combine,” now called Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB), continued to manufacture timepieces and related objects until it was privatized after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It employed around 2,000 people over the course of those 40 years.
* In 1994 the privatized, scaled-down remains of the GUB factory were bought by Heinz W. Pfeifer and Alfred Wallner, who successfully turned it into an upscale brand called Glashütte Original. The Swatch Group bought it in 2000.
* Nomos was the first company to open in reunited Glashütte. Roland Schwertner established the company there in 1990, naming it after a brand found in the annals of the city’s history because he liked what the word stood for: “nomos” is Greek for law, order.
* Tutima, a brand whose director fortunately fled to the West before the wall came down, and successfully reestablished there, in 2011 created the first repeating timepiece fully conceived, developed, produced and assembled on German soil. See The Tutima Hommage Minute Repeater Chimes ‘Happy To Be Home.’
* A. Lange & Söhne has manufactured the most complicated wristwatch to come from Glashütte: the Grand Complication. See A. Lange & Söhne Grand Complication’s Secret Ingredients (Live Images + Pricing) for complete information on this masterpiece.
* The first guilloche engines came to Pforzheim in 1857; ten years later, there were already ten specialists located in the “gold city.” By 1930 there were 33 guilloche companies situated in Pforzheim, employing a record 330 guillocheurs for the various ornamental products produced there. Wars, receding economics, brocading machines, and finally the quartz crisis chased true guilloche out of Pforzheim, and by 1982 there were three specialists left there (source: Lexikon der Deutschen Uhrenindustrie 1850-1980).
One of the original companies settling in Pforzheim 1857 was Kollmar. In 1985 this company and its inventory of rose (guilloche) engines was bought by a young master engraver by the name of Jochen Benzinger, whose spacious workshop closely resembles a museum today. In addition to his eponymous brand, he also works as a freelance supplier for numerous companies in Germany and Switzerland.
German watch design
Germans have a real affinity for mechanics and technology. Several of the world’s best car and electronics brands originate in this country, which boasted a population of roughly 86 million across 16 federal states in the united country as of 2014.
Germanic design is much like the people who create it: predominately minimalist, often containing design concepts originating in Bauhaus or Werkbund movements, clean, and above all functional and of lasting quality. Germanic watches are often for people who do not like fussy designs, but who do like reliability and attention to detail.
Modern Teutonic movement design is often based on concepts and traditional techniques originating in Glashütte. Here movement concepts were (and still are) based on stability and reliability, often resulting in minimalist mechanical aesthetics. This gave rise to the use of the two-thirds plate and then the three-quarter plate instead of movements with individual bridges that the Swiss are wont to use.
Modern-day Glashütte movements are almost always designed around a three-quarter plate, which allows some visibility of beautiful, decisive components such as the escapement. This style is predominately found at A. Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original. The recently founded Moritz Grossmann brand uses two-thirds plates.
Most of the Glashütte-based companies use traditional movement decorations originating in the city, which differ only slightly from those used in Switzerland. Some of these elements include Glashütte ribbing, which is like côtes de Genève but applied at a different angle, and sunburst patterns on wheels.
Finishing is very important and meticulously applied.
“German made” may not necessarily convey the same connotation of luxury that “Swiss made” does for the average consumer across the globe, but in my opinion it should.
Here at Quill & Pad, we have published numerous stories and reports about German brands and Germanic watchmaking including:
A. Lange & Söhne
Habring2 (half of which is German)
Lang & Heyne